DR JOHN LEE: What WAS the point of vaccine triumph?

DR JOHN LEE: What WAS the point of vaccine triumph?

February 16, 2021

What WAS the point of vaccine triumph if we are doomed to endless curbs, asks Dr JOHN LEE

The news comes as a body blow to a country that is reeling and surely can not take much more.

Despite the success of the vaccine programme, which will see all vulnerable people protected against Covid-19 in a month, it seems lockdown will largely continue until July.

Restaurants and churches possibly still closed. Travel impossible. Families forbidden to mingle indoors. The Treasury still borrowing billions to keep people on furlough. This is draining the health of our population and our economy.

Anyone would be justified in demanding to know what the past year’s sacrifices have been for, if not to end lockdown as soon as possible.

How can the Government fail to set free the country — particularly after the stellar vaccination campaign? 

The figures have been extraordinary. When Boris Johnson promised that the 15 million most vulnerable people would be vaccinated by this week, few believed him.

Despite the success of the vaccine programme, which will see all vulnerable people protected against Covid-19 in a month, it seems lockdown will largely continue until July this summer

The Government has, after all, promised much that it has failed to deliver.

But this time it has more than delivered. An incredible 275,956 jabs were administered on Monday, giving excellent protection to over a quarter of a million people — and we’re on target to reach 32 million by the end of March, a month ahead of schedule.

What is more, there are clear signs the vaccines are working. The latest figures show deaths have more than halved from their January high.

And, crucially, death rates are falling twice as quickly in the over-80s — those who have been vaccinated — as in the over-65s, most of whom are still waiting for the jab.

The statistics are irrefutable. The infection rate is now 142 cases per 100,000 people, the lowest for four months.

Deaths among the over-80s in English hospitals have fallen by more than 50 per cent since the peak on January 21.

Surely we are getting very close to the point everyone has been striving to reach. And when the over-60s are vaccinated — next month sometime — we will have got there.

Throughout the pandemic, the Prime Minister has insisted we must protect the NHS. Well, we have protected it.

A member of staff administers a vaccine to a member of the public on the opening day of NHS Lothian’s first drive through mass vaccination centre at Queen Margaret University Campus

In November he described vaccines — in one of his distinctive phrases — as ‘the scientific cavalry… we can hear the drumming hooves coming over the brow of the hill’.

The cavalry is here now, and driving the enemy from the field. So why is the Government behaving with such extravagant caution?

When the PM finally unveils his roadmap to bring us out of the crisis, which he is set to do on Monday, he needs to say what the nation is desperate to hear: it is almost over.

Instead, the guidance is expected to be that staff must still work from home, rather than the office, and that social-distancing rules will continue to keep people more than a metre apart.

The effect on the hospitality and entertainment industry, plus sporting events, City businesses and other areas of life, are incalculable.

This is not just a Covid problem any more — although every death from this appalling virus is, of course, a tragedy. The concentration on the pandemic has come at a huge cost to other areas of health, too.

Nearly 225,000 people in England have waited more than 12 months for routine hospital treatment — the highest number since April 2008.

By this April, NHS waiting lists are on track to reach 10 million — or one in six patients.

The effect on the hospitality and entertainment industry, plus sporting events, City businesses and other areas of life, are incalculable. Pictured: Closed business in Piccadilly Circus, London

Cancer sufferers are dying and will continue to do so because of cancelled appointments.

It is vital our politicians start listening to a greater variety of advice. That which takes into account the health of non-Covid patients, and the health of the nation in general. The situation is complex, and lockdown is a blunt instrument.

During the pandemic, the Government has overestimated the effectiveness of its restrictions, and failed to acknowledge the damage that they do.

Lockdowns are detrimental to our quality of life. Everyone sees that, even those who ferociously advocate staying indoors to avoid contact.

Quality of life is not some vague, meaningless phrase, a bonus that can be cancelled when it becomes inconvenient. It is utterly essential to mental and physical health.

Millions of young people have been deprived of all that matters most — education, love life, friends, fun.

And isolation has been imposed on untold numbers of elderly people during their last months.

The economy has also been crippled. I’m no businessman, and my interest in international monetary affairs is strictly medical: I know that the general health of a population tracks the national GDP. The poorer a country becomes, the more illness and disease is prevalent there. 

The empty tables of a temporarily closed restaurant stand in the lower courtyard of a near-deserted Covent Garden covered market in London in November last year during lockdown

Because Britain is so far ahead with its vaccine programme, compared with the EU, we are in a strong position to restart our economy and steal a march on the rest of the West.

The pound has hit a three-year high against the dollar in expectation of restrictions being eased.

Last week in the Daily Mail, Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane described Britain’s economy as being like a ‘coiled spring’ ready to release vast amounts of ‘pent-up financial energy’.

Our scientists have given us a miraculous head start to unleash that energy — it would be a tragedy to waste it.

If the Government understood this, I believe policy would change. Curbs would be lifted sooner.

It is just because No 10 is listening to a small number of advisers that we face more months of lockdown.

I am the lead pathologist for the Health Action and Recovery Team [HART], which advocates a multidisciplinary approach to data, much wider than that used currently by the Cabinet.

Like everyone else, HART is committed to saving lives and boosting health, while protecting the NHS. We’re all on the same side here.

Gradual approach means traders will have to wait until Easter – early April – for a limited restart

And I certainly do not wish to be reckless or dismissive about the dangers. But the roadmap being suggested now is ultra-cautious, so timid that it will harm far more people than it helps.

If the reopening of pubs is delayed until May, for instance, many of them will have gone under by then: six in ten pubs are already on the brink.

And if family gatherings are really to be restricted to six people outdoors until June, millions of loving grandparents, aunts and uncles will be in utter despair.


These restrictions cannot be justified, when it is expected that half the population will have vaccine protection long before then.

We have to come to terms with the ugly fact that this disease will continue to be endemic in our population, and it will continue to evolve new variants.

Regrettably, we might have incubated these variants, by locking down instead of allowing the milder variants to circulate.

The immune system has evolved over 600 million years, since the beginning of multi-cellular animal life. We ought to trust it more. And we ought to trust the vaccines, which are delivering excellent levels of protection.

The science behind fighting Covid is multi-layered, and politicians need all the help they can get to interpret it correctly.

But the message hiding in the figures could not be simpler. There is no good scientific reason to continue the lockdown as the Government plans. The rescinding of restrictions should start as soon as possible.

Dr John Lee is a former professor of pathology and NHS consultant pathologist.

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